Compare and contrast the way EDDC (previous post) and Claire Wright approach people with benefits problems. And the way Hugo Swire and Neil Parish do – nothing.
“Two officers from the Citizens Advice Bureau were able to help the majority of people with their challenges at the benefits drop-in meeting I held last month, at the Institute in Ottery St Mary.
Hilary Nelson, chief executive of East Devon Citizen’s Advice Bureau was on hand to support people, with her colleague, Sheran at the meeting, which took place on Tuesday 21 August.
Around a dozen people attended and listened to each other’s stories, which centred around difficulties with claiming a range of benefits, resulting in a great deal of stress.
Residents came from the Ottery area and beyond. Difficulties reported included with working tax credit overpayments and the impact of being financially penalised so as to be unable to pay bills and rent. Others reported being told they were fit to work, even though a doctor had submitted a report to state otherwise. Others wanted more information about the carers allowance.
Also at the meeting was student, Molly Dack, who is working with a benefits advocacy project to provide free legal advice free in Bristol. Molly is interested in supporting East Devon Citizen’s Advice Bureau in providing a similar project in Devon.
This sounded like a brilliant idea and received a warm welcome from Hilary Nelson. We had a discussion after the meeting and I advised on sources of funding that might help with setting up such a valuable service.
All the residents who came along were offered appointments with CAB officers, who said they would work to try and obtain the benefits they are entitled to, or assist with the appeals process.
Citizens Advice Bureau officers sit with clients, listen to their stories and represent them with government bodies. It is an invaluable service, more needed now than ever before, due to massive funding cuts by government.
Having represented local people on these issues, I can testify what a massively complicated bureaucratic system is in place. And because of austerity budget cuts there does not appear to enough staff in the call centre to cope with the level of demand.
Many of the problems reported at the meeting also related to process being inefficient and poor, such as a complaints manager not diverting her phone while on holiday, and people having to submit their details many times, or staff being irritable or repeatedly getting the information wrong.
Some cases had been going on for months without resolution. It’s exhausting, dispiriting and stressful when this happens. Even I found it stressful when I couldn’t get through for hour after hour and it wasn’t me who couldn’t pay my rent or bills!
Ms Nelson then updated everyone on the introduction of Universal Credit, which came into force in East Devon in July for new claimants. It merges six benefits into one and has resulted in a cut in Working Tax Credit. It has received a lot of very negative national press coverage, with the National Audit Office (NAO) essentially condemning it.
A report published by the NAO in June stated: “We think the larger claims for universal credit, such as boosted employment, are unlikely to be demonstrable at any point in future. Nor for that matter will value for money.”
The NAO report painted a damning picture of a system that despite more than £1bn in investment, eight years in development and a much hyped digital-only approach to transforming welfare, is still in many respects unwieldy, inefficient and reliant on basic, manual processes.
The very controversial six week delay for the first payment can now be resolved by claimants asking for an advance. Although this is treated as a loan and must be paid back.
Since the meeting’s publicity in the local press, I have been contacted by Lee Tozer, Devon and Cornwall Area Manager for Job Centre Plus.
He has been very helpful and I have since met with him and talked through some of the key issues. I also visited Honiton’s Job Centre (the only centre left in East Devon now as every other office has been closed due to austerity cuts) where I was greeted by its manager, Sadie Steadman. I chatted to her and with her staff about their roles and how they are trying to get more people back into work, as per the government’s directive.
I also spoke with an East Devon District Council officer, who is stationed at Honiton Job Centre five days a week to help claimants with housing benefit and Universal Credit issues.
I found the staff to be enthusiastic and compassionate. I sat in on an interview with someone who was as keen as mustard to get a job and was over the moon to have been offered one. That was nice.
I very definitely have reservations about the sanctions process. There is a difference between someone playing the system and not bothering to turn up for appointments and someone who genuinely is having problems or genuinely cannot work or arrive for an appointment, although staff assured me that they made every effort to contact someone before sanctioning them.
But there is bound to be a gap here in some cases, between the views of people who don’t believe they are fit for work (such as those people with a terminal illness or with cancer) and assessors who have assessed them as fit for work. From talking to the local staff they seemed to be running a tight and fair ship. However, the stuff coming out of the national press on the suffering caused by benefit sanctions is truly appalling.
As well as the fantastic support from the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, Job Centre Plus also provides a dedicated helpline for people who are having difficulties.
Please contact me direct if you need access to this number. Otherwise you can contact Job Centre direct or simply drop by. No prior appointment needed.
I will keep a close eye on this issue….”